HONGKONG could become a centre for treating panic attacks under a scheme launched at the Queen Mary Hospital yesterday. The head of the psychiatric department of the University of Hongkong, Professor Felice Lieh-mak, said people who suffered panic attacks went to psychiatrists after exhausting a host of other treatments, mostly for non-existent cardiac ailments. ''In the medical field, panic attacks are not very well recognised and for a long time it was considered to be a person who was hysterical, malingering or had a heart problem,'' she said. About one in 20 Hongkong people are thought to suffer from panic attacks, which can occur quickly, reaching a crescendo in minutes and subsiding after half an hour. Sufferers complain of heart palpitations, a feeling of suffocation, trembling, and faintness and often think they are having a heart attack, going to die or going crazy. Dr Peter Lee Wing-ho, of the university's psychiatric department, said the symptoms were pervasive and debilitating, and the memory of previous attacks could prompt another. A team at the University of Hongkong has embarked on the first programme in Asia using cognitive therapy to treat panic attacks and aims to develop the institution into a regional training and treatment centre in the technique. The programme, run in conjunction with Oxford University, will collate the effectiveness of the therapy, which emphasises self-help instead of medication. Although the therapy has been used before, including on about eight patients during the past year at the university, Dr Lee said the latest programme was its first systematic application in Asia.